Have you ever heard anyone speak in tongues? Some of us have, but many of us haven’t. So what does it mean to speak in tongues and what does the Bible have to say about this phenomenon?
The ability to speak in tongues is first mentioned in Mark 16:17 by Jesus: “These signs will accompany those who have believed: in My name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues.” This is, to the best of my knowledge, the only time speaking in tongues is mentioned in the four gospels.
From this verse, we learn that speaking in tongues is one sign of those who believe in Jesus Christ. The word “new” is the Greek word kainos and means “fresh, unused, of a new kind, uncommon or unheard of.”
This verse has sparked much controversy. Some believe that “new tongues” just means a language that’s new to the person speaking. Others believe that “new tongues” refers to a language never before heard on the earth, the language of heaven. Biblical evidence seems to support both beliefs and still the controversy remains.
We find the next mention of speaking in tongues in Acts 2:
And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance. Now there were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men from every nation under heaven. And when this sound occurred, the crowd came together, and were bewildered because each one of them was hearing them speak in his own language. They were amazed and astonished, saying, ‘Why, are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we were born?’ (Acts 2:4-8).
From this passage, we learn that the ability to speak with other tongues comes from the Holy Spirit. There were at least 16 separate nations represented in Jerusalem, each with their own language, when this event occurred. Each person present heard these believers speaking in their own language.
Now we move on to 1 Corinthians. Paul takes chapters 12-14 in 1 Corinthians to address spiritual gifts, including many verses about speaking in tongues. Paul begins by mentioning tongues in a list of spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12:8-10). Later, in verses 28-31, Paul makes it clear that not every believer receives every gift and encourages believers to desire the greater gifts of being apostles, prophets and teachers first.
Chapter 13 begins with an interesting statement: “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels.” The word “tongues” is plural, meaning more than one language. The question is, what’s the language of the angels? This is a question I honestly can’t answer–maybe the language of angels is 24/7 praise of God, maybe it’s a new language entirely, maybe it’s both.
Moving on to chapter 14, Paul makes it clear that when someone speaks in tongues, they speak directly to God (14:2). That said, Paul explains that using the gift of tongues in public is useless if there is no interpretation (14:5-17). This would be like speaking Portuguese to a room full of native Mandarin Chinese speakers. They wouldn’t benefit from what you say unless someone interprets in a language they understand.
Paul takes the last part of chapter 14 to tell believers that the gift of tongues must always be used in an orderly manner (v. 27). There must be an interpreter present if a public display of tongues is used (v. 27). If there is no interpreter present, then the person with the gift of tongues needs to remain silent in the church, speaking only to themselves and God (v. 28).
Regardless of what you may have heard, speaking in tongues is not uncontrollable. The Holy Spirit has blessed me to speak in tongues, but I choose to use this gift only in my private prayer time with God or very quietly to myself while praying in a group. Keep in mind, speaking in tongues, like all spiritual gifts, is for blessing and encouraging others–both believers and non-believers–and never for our own importance.
If you want to learn more about what the Bible says about speaking in tongues, I strongly encourage you to read 1 Corinthians 12-14.
What do you think about speaking in tongues?
So then tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers; but a prophecy is for a sign, not to unbelievers but to those who believe (1 Corinthians 14:22).